Hundreds of USDA workers will have to move outside the Washington, D.C., area as part of a reorganization plan announced Thursday by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The plan would move the Economic Research Service, now under the department’s Research, Education and Economics mission area, to the Office of the Chief Economist, under the Office of the Secretary. The National Institute of Food and Agriculture also would be relocated, although new locations for both offices have not been determined.

The Office of Communications said localities that express interest will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. ERS currently has about 300 employees and NIFA has about 400.

“It’s been our goal to make USDA the most effective, efficient, and customer-focused department in the entire federal government,” Perdue said in a news release. “In our administration, we have looked critically at the way we do business, with the ultimate goal of ensuring the best service possible for our customers, and for the taxpayers of the United States. In some cases, this has meant realigning some of our offices and functions, or even relocating them, in order to make more logical sense or provide more streamlined and efficient services.”

USDA says moving ERS back to the Office of the Chief Economist, where it used to be located, "simply makes sense because the two have similar missions.” ERS studies and anticipates trends and emerging issues, while OCE advises the secretary and Congress on the economic implications of policies and programs. 

“These two agencies were aligned once before, and bringing them back together will enhance the effectiveness of economic analysis at USDA," the department said.

USDA said it was undertaking the relocation for three main reasons:

  1. To improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities. USDA has experienced significant turnover in these positions, and it has been difficult to recruit employees to the Washington area, particularly given the high cost of living and long commutes.
  2. To place these important USDA resources closer to many of its stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from the Washington area. 
  3. To benefit American taxpayers. There will be significant savings on employment costs and rent, which will allow more employees to be retained in the long run, even in the face of tightening budgets. 

USDA says no ERS or NIFA employees will be involuntarily separated, and that every employee who wants to continue working will have an opportunity to do so, although that will mean moving to a new location for most.  Employees will be offered relocation assistance and Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments, the department said.

“None of this reflects on the jobs being done by our ERS or NIFA employees,” said Perdue, who said he frequently tells his Cabinet colleagues that USDA has the best workforce in the federal government. “These changes are more steps down the path to better service to our customers, and will help us fulfill our informal motto to ‘Do right and feed everyone.’”

Perdue previously announced other significant changes within the department. In May 2017, USDA created the first-ever Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs and reconstituted and renamed the new Farm Production and Conservation mission area, among other realignments.  In addition, in September 2017, Perdue realigned a number of offices to improve customer service and maximize efficiency. Those actions involved innovation, consolidation, and the rearrangement of certain offices into more logical organizational reporting structures.

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